Loving AmeriCorps to death.

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June 20 2003 4:09 PM

Loving AmeriCorps to Death

How Leslie Lenkowsky sank national service.

Last week, AmeriCorps indicated it could only fund half the number of members it had bankrolled in recent years to build houses for the poor, teach reading in the inner city, and much else. The budget cuts were forced on AmeriCorps by a Republican-run Congress that had never been particularly fond of Bill Clinton's national service program. But the real blame for the demise of AmeriCorps—which President Bush had embraced and planned to expand—rests with the man Bush chose to oversee it. As the CEO of the Corporation for National and Community Service, Leslie Lenkowsky is the ultimate boss of AmeriCorps. He ran it into the ground.

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Lenkowsky's chief sin was to commit AmeriCorps to hiring more volunteers than the program was able to pay. While President Bush boasted that AmeriCorps was "expanding mightily under Les's leadership," recruitment had to be suspended last year because of a shortfall in the trust that funded education grants for AmeriCorps members. The accounting breakdown resulted in two outside reviews, by the Office of Management and Budget and the General Accounting Office, as well as an internal investigation by the corporation's inspector general. A few weeks ago, Lenkowsky announced he would be stepping down, claiming it had nothing to do with mismanagement controversies that have since led Sen. Barbara Mikulski, D-Md., to call for his immediate resignation.

What happened at AmeriCorps? It boils down to two problems. The first was that the agency lacked any reliable means to know, at any given time, precisely how many volunteers it had. Consequently, it had only a fuzzy idea about what financial liabilities it was taking on, since each volunteer was promised, at the end of his tour, an education grant worth $4,725 per member.

The second problem was that nobody paid much attention to how much money was in the trust used to pay those education grants. In previous years, the fund had always run a surplus, thanks to years of Clintonian munificence. So confident were Lenkowsky and company of the fund's invincible solvency that a year earlier they had asked Congress for no new funds for the trust—even as AmeriCorps, we now know, was exceeding its targeted enrollment by tens of thousands of new members.

The lack of basic information about how many members AmeriCorps had can be blamed on the agency's decentralized management system and grant-giving authority. This was by design. Clinton had devolved control to state commissions, whose directors are appointed by governors, in order to win the program support from the governors. With cash rolling out to the states in massive annual increases, what was not to like? Lenkowsky favored such decentralization and wanted to devolve management still further. In a Weekly Standard article published a few months before he was named to run the corporation, Lenkowsky argued that AmeriCorps should be "voucherized," with payments going directly to grantees rather than to the organizations that doled out the grants. He noted that this scheme might "dismay the auditors" but shrugged that worry off. Once in office, Lenkowsky never implemented his voucher scheme but remained faithfully indifferent to accounting concerns.

It's instructive to compare AmeriCorps' recruitment practices to that of VISTA, a small organization also under the umbrella of the Corporation for National and Community Service (and thus Lenkowsky's authority). In November 2001, VISTA capped its own recruitment because of the general upsurge in volunteers after Sept. 11. One reason VISTA was able to foresee that its enrollment threatened to exceed its budget, according to Matt Dunne, who was then its director, was that its members were all payrolled through Washington.

Congress learned of the looming shortfall in November. The fallout was quick and severe. Milkuski called AmeriCorps the "Enron of nonprofits." Republican Sen. Kit Bond of Missouri briefly raised the prospect of criminal sanctions for the officers responsible (it's against the law for a federal agency to commit unappropriated federal moneys). Congress then decided to cap membership at a maximum of 50,000. But because of a ruling from the OMB, much of AmeriCorps' funding will be devoted to paying for financial obligations incurred earlier, placing the actual number somewhere around 35,000 (which includes 22,000 slots that were held up by the suspension). Support for AmeriCorps in the Senate has resulted in a request for a $200 million supplemental appropriation, which would bring the number back toward 50,000 but still well below recent levels of membership.

AmeriCorps' decimation is, among other things, a blow to President Bush's goal of providing social services via faith-based agencies, many of whom already rely on AmeriCorps. Director Laura Chalker of the West Side Ecumenical Ministry in Cleveland says the number of members they have working with at-risk teens will be cut in half, as will the number of their after-school centers.

The maiming of AmeriCorps infuriates its supporters. Sens. John McCain, R-Ariz., and Evan Bayh, D-Ind., (co-authors of another national service bill) have criticized the president for backing away from AmeriCorps when continued support became inconvenient. Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry recently trotted out his own plan for a massive increase in national service, suggesting AmeriCorps' promise and failings could become a campaign issue in 2004. But if AmeriCorps can't make itself accountable to Congress, national service may go the way of Lyndon Johnson's "community-action"-minded War on Poverty and Richard Nixon's Comprehensive Employment and Training Act, a jobs program abused by the states and killed off by Ronald Reagan. The graveyard of American social policy is abundant with similar decentralized programs that were killed off by horror stories of incompetence and mismanagement.

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